The Reverend George Hammond Torrance was born in 1874 in Maidenhead, Berkshire and ordained to the priesthood at Rochester Cathedral in 1898. Prior to his appointment as Vicar of All Saints’, he was Priest-in-Charge of the Mission District of S. John the Divine, Earlsfield.
His incumbency – which began on 3rd May 1914 – is the longest in the history of the church, took in two world wars and saw major changes in society. He guided the parish through times of financial hardship, and falling numbers largely due to the increasing secularisation of the population and the lure of cheap Sunday excursions by rail to the seaside and beyond. For the first time we see in the Parish Service Register entries such as ‘no one came’ and ‘just myself and the boy server present.’
Nevertheless, for much of his time at All Saints’ there was a thriving Mission Church in Garfield Road which only fell into decline during the second word war. The Free-Will-Offering Scheme also began under his leadership as did the ‘Million Farthings’ Fund both of which helped to see the church through some hard and difficult times.
During the first world war, like many others, he spoke in favour of the recruiting scheme for the forces whilst at the same time saying that he had his duty to do praying that God would bless the army and the country, and that he would go about his parish encouraging and consoling his people, comforting those who mourned, and in a wider sense preparing them all for the return of peace.
Fr. Torrance also introduced the concept of a ‘People’s Warden ‘ – a churchwarden chosen by the people of the church rather than by the incumbent himself. The records also show that vestments were introduced during his time – special appeals being made in order that they might purchase colours for all the seasons of the Church’s year.
When peace came in 1918, Fr. Torrance read the prayers at a service of thanksgiving in Wimbledon Broadway and dedicated the memorial at Merton Bus Garage. Plans were also put in place for the provision of a War Memorial in the church itself. There was however, an urgency to get back to normal and so the parish gradually resumed its traditional activities – the Vicarage Garden often the venue for the largest social gatherings. But now the church was not so central to the lives of the population and there was a decline in the number of communicants. In the 1920’s unemployment was again on the rise, the free distribution of Hot Cross Buns for the children was re-instated and there were serious concerns over health – diphtheria, typhoid and scarlet fever being among the diseases most prevalent.
Fr. Torrance must have had many problems to face during the inter-war years, but it was recorded that he always presided over meetings with ‘his usual courtesy and patience.’ He wrote on several occasions to the local press asking for financial help with the running of the parish, but his letters were always polite and kindly in nature. In her report at the 1927 A.G.M. the secretary wrote: – ‘the work of the church goes bravely on in spite of the occasional setbacks, but we do not include the word failure in our vocabulary and so keep on in faith and hope.’
But to maintain numbers in the early 1930’s was not easy. Fr. Torrance wrote: – “No one can be satisfied with the numbers in our Sunday Schools, or the number of young people who attend church regularly. The reasons for such a state of things are, no doubt, numerous and the remedies hard to find, and we hope that by holding a conference of all who are interested in young people’s work (and what Christian is not?) we may be able to find some solution of the problem.” The “Wimbledon News” added the following rider: – “All Saints’ is in the midst of a populous district, yet few of the actual parishioners are regular attendants at the services. Probably if it were generally known that the services at All Saints’ are conducted with perfect reverence, accompanied by good music and singing, and that there is a homely atmosphere in the church, many would be induced to attend.”
This sentiment was echoed in the local press reporting on Christmas Services at All Saints’: – The celebrant was Reverend G. Hammond Torrance, whose manner of celebrating Holy Communion is always with profound reverence, intense sympathy, and a ceremonial ornate, yet the essence of simplicity and devotion. Services at All Saints’ are always seasons of reverent devotion – the atmosphere of the church is that of sincere reverence and consciousness that ‘The Lord is there.’ All Saints’ Church is in the midst of a poor district, and its financial burdens are heavy by reason of the genuine poverty of the parishioners. That good work is being done by the Vicar, and that the services are always reverent and inspiring, I can testify from personal knowledge of the church for more than twenty years.”
By the late 1930’s the strain of running a parish such as All Saints’ was beginning to tell and Fr. Torrance requested that he be found another post, but the war intervened. In the Register of Services alongside the list of services for Sunday 3rd. September in Fr. Torrance’s hand is simply written: -“War declared against Germany 11.00.a.m. Air raid warning at 11.45.a.m.”
All Saints’ once again adjusted itself to the realities of war and, in 1941 further pressure was put upon the Vicar when the Curate, the Reverend Graham, tendered his resignation. He had done a great deal of work in the parish and would be sorely missed, but a new Curate – the Rev. Harry Gill Webber – joined the parish in late 194, much to the relief of Fr. Torrance. In the following year The Blessed Sacrament was reserved for the first time and Solemn Evensong introduced, but the workload was finally to prove too much and, in the autumn of 1943, Fr. Torrance announced his intention to retire. He brought his ministry to an end at a Social on January 18th 1944. But by now he was not a well man, and it is recorded that he received his last Communion in the parish in tears when it was brought to his bedside by Father Coster in Solemn Procession from All Saints’ accompanied by bells and acolytes.
Father Torrance retired to Rustington in Sussex where he served as Assistant Priest at the Parish Church of S. Peter & Paul as long as he was able. From the old magazine distribution list it seems that he lived there for seven years before passing away in 1951.